Sprint Cup Series driver Kasey Kahne (5) celebrates winning the Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)
Bubble drivers, meet your worst nightmare.
His name is Kasey Kahne.
When Kahne stole victory in Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, thanks to a series of magnificent restarts, it had to make Greg Biffle extremely nervous.
But Biffle is in a better place than Clint Bowyer or Kyle Larson, who, at this point, are downright desperate.
With Kahne’s win, and with Matt Kenseth the first to clinch a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth on points, 14 drivers are locked into the 10-race playoff. That leaves two of 16 spots up for grabs in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
One of those Chase positions will go to the driver highest in the standings without a victory this season, and Ryan Newman is the odds-on choice to claim it. Newman is ninth in the series standings, 19 points ahead of 10th-place Biffle.
Other than Kenseth, those two drivers are highest in the standings without a win. Newman will lock up a Chase spot if he finishes 18th or better at Richmond, no matter what else happens.
In reality, Newman has more leeway than that. Discounting the long-shot chances of Bowyer and Larson, who are 42 and 43 points behind Newman, respectively, Newman simply must finish 18 points ahead of Biffle, who owns the tiebreaker between the two with a best finish of second this season to Newman’s best finish of third.
Based on the statistics, you have to like Newman’s chances. He has a victory and six top fives in 25 starts at Richmond, with an average finish of 11.3.
Biffle, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t pick Richmond as the track for the regular-season finale, based on his performance there. The driver of the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford has no wins at Richmond and just two top fives in 24 starts. Biffle’s average finish at the .75-mile short track is 16.9.
Biffle, however, controls his own destiny if one of the 13 drivers who already has won a race this year goes to Victory Lane at Richmond-or if either Newman of Kenseth wins the race. In that case, Biffle merely needs to finish 22nd or better to clinch a Chase spot (23rd if he leads a lap and 24th if he leads most laps).
For everyone else who hopes to compete for the championship trophy, there is only one realistic avenue: win the race. That applies not only to Bowyer, whose hopes were dashed by a broken shifter at Atlanta, but also to everyone behind him in the standings.
With two Chase spots left, and with one of them almost certainly going to Newman or Biffle, there are 17 other drivers with at least a mathematical chance to make the Chase by winning at Richmond: Bowyer, Larson, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, David Gilliland, David Ragan and Cole Whitt.
If you have to pick one driver from that vast array, Bowyer should be your choice. Two of his eight career victories have come at Richmond, and his average finish there is 12.0.
And, yes, a driver can find redemption for a star-crossed season in a single race.
After all, Kasey Kahne just did.